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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters. 

New York Times editors and reporters might’ve thought they were going to be congratulated by readers for Sunday’s front-page, six-reporter expose on President-elect Donald Trump’s nearly endless business conflicts. But a chorus of media observers and critics had other ideas.

Rather than applaud the Times for its report, lots of commentators wondered why the newspaper waited until after the election to wave large red flags about Trump’s obvious conflicts, especially when the Times — and so much of the campaign press — spent an extraordinary amount of energy obsessing over potential conflicts of interest, and possible ethical lapses, supposedly surrounding Hillary Clinton.

Looking back, there certainly seems to be a perception that the political press didn’t really care about Trump’s looming, impossible-to-miss conflicts or the bad “optics” they might produce. And it appears that the press was overly infatuated with conflict questions about Clinton — questions today that seem quaint compared to Trump’s far-flung business dealings, which represent a possible gateway to corruption.

That’s not to say the topic wasn’t addressed or that some journalists didn’t tackle it in real time during the campaign season. Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek produced a helpful deep dive back in September. And the business press was urgent and upfront in detailing the unprecedented nature of Trump’s looming problem. Bloomberg in June: “Conflicts of Interest? President Trump’s Would Be Amazing.”

But in general, the political press seemed less engaged with this issue and appeared reluctant to tag the obvious Trump storyline as a campaign priority. There didn’t seem to be an institutional commitment to pursuing and documenting that storyline, even though the potential problems for Trump were obvious and the story might have disqualified him.

Even today, the story isn’t being treated with the urgency it deserves. Yes, more new organizations are tepidly acknowledging the colossal conflicts and looming inside deals, but so much of the coverage still lacks resolve. Question for journalists: If Clinton arrived at the White House with open and boundless business conflicts, how would you cover that story? What kind of outraged, lecturing tone would you take? Now treat the Trump story the same way.

Newsrooms need to learn from their lackluster campaign coverage and treat the unfolding Trump controversy as a permanent beat inside newsrooms for the next four years. It certainly demands that kind of attention and focus.

Note that aside from the Times’ big Sunday Trump conflict piece, the newspaper also published detailed articles on the topic November 21 and 14, and before the election on November 5. But aside from a few exceptions, in the months prior to Election Day, when voters were assessing the candidates, the intense focus on Trump’s conflicts just wasn’t there. (As Media Matters reported, the same trend played out on network newscasts, which devoted scant time to Trump’s conflicts of interest before the election only to ramp up coverage after Trump’s victory.)

Where was there lots of media campaign interest? (And also lots of bad journalism?) Trying to detail Clinton’s possible conflicts, a storyline forever deemed by the press to be a Very Big Deal.

Recall that the Times and The Washington Post considered potential Clinton conflicts stemming from the family charity to be so pressing that both newspapers entered into unusual exclusive editorial agreements with Peter Schweizer, the partisan Republican author who wrote the Breitbart-backed book Clinton Cash. (The Times also breathlessly hyped the book in its news pages.)

And that was 18 months before Election Day. The topic remained a media priority throughout the campaign.

Clinton Cash, a hodgepodge of innuendo and connect-the-dot allegations, was riddled with errorsU.S. News & World Report described the book as a “somewhat problematic” look at the Clintons’ financial dealings, while Time noted that one of the book’s central claims was “based on little evidence.”

Yet Clinton’s alleged conflicts were considered to be so important inside newsrooms — and it was deemed so crucial for the Beltway press to suss out every conceivable detail — that the Times and the Post were willing to make dubious alliances with GOP operatives.

Needless to say, no such partisan unions were formed to report out Trump’s massive business conflicts. Indeed, most news consumers would be hard-pressed to suggest Trump’s obvious business conflicts constituted a centerpiece of his campaign coverage for the previous 18 months.

Meanwhile, recall that lots of media elites demanded Clinton take action before the election in order to eliminate the supposed conflicts surrounding the Clinton Foundation. During August and September, that topic created yet another wave of frenzied Clinton coverage, fueled by the media’s “optics” obsession.

At the time, NBC’s Chuck Todd perfectly summed up the media’s weird pursuit when he announced, “Let’s be clear, this is all innuendo at this point. No pay for play has been proven. No smoking gun has been found.” Todd then quickly added, “But like many of these Clinton scandals, it looks bad.”

From NPR:

There’s no question the optics are bad for Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. But no proof has emerged that any official favors — regulations, government contracts, international deals — were curried in exchange for donations or pledges.

And from Time:

If she didn’t do anything wrong, why won’t she defend herself? By avoiding taking responsibility, Clinton only exacerbates the perception she is dishonest and untrustworthy, the primary hurdle on her path to the White House. Optics matter when the issue is transparency.

According to the media mantra, Clinton’s possible big-money conflicts looked really, really bad. Reporters hammered the theme for weeks and months, while only occasionally glancing over in the direction of Trump’s concrete conflicts.

Today, coverage of Trump’s conflicts and self-dealing has belatedly arrived. But it often comes with an odd sense of delayed wonder, as if journalists are just now realizing the epic size of the pay-for-play problem at hand for the country, while still hedging their bets.

For instance, the headline for the Post’s November 25 article announced, “Trump’s Presidency, Overseas Business Deals And Relations With Foreign Governments Could All Become Intertwined.”

Could? The president-elect’s business dealing could be a conflict for U.S. foreign policy? That Post framing seems to dramatically underplay what’s currently unfolding. As the Post itself has reported, “Trump has done little to set boundaries between his personal and official business since winning the presidency.”

Indeed, Trump’s refusal to divest himself from a sprawling array of business interests is certain to create an ethical morass that even Republican attorneys insist will produce endless, possibly debilitating, conflicts for Trump.

The media mostly missed this pressing story once during the campaign. They can’t afford to overlook it a second time.

IMAGE: U.S. Presidential Candidate Donald Trump gestures at a press conference held during a visit to his Scottish golf course at Turnberry in Scotland, August 1, 2015. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne